In 2016, three abortion stories told on TV caught the attention of critics. The plots on “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “You’re the Worst” all normalized abortion as a natural part of women’s health. All of these stories, however, occurred pre-Trump.
While the debate over women’s reproductive rights never went away, the topic is back in the spotlight as a new health care bill seeks to treat pregnancies and rape as pre-existing conditions and Texas legislators seek to pass anti-abortion bills. Over on Hulu, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is looking less and less like fiction.
Cosmopolitan spoke to 10 show creators and writers about key abortion episodes going as far back as 1972. In the interview, legendary TV producer Norman Lear said, “I can’t imagine an excuse for staying away from [the subject of abortion], if it’s well discussed and you understand each point of view. The establishment likes to go along with that old idea that ‘nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people,’ and I think it’s dead wrong. There’s a sense that people are stupid, and we have to protect them. They’re not! And we don’t!”
While the full article is a worthwhile read about the role TV has to play about advocacy, here are three takeaways on how these creatives were able to tell the abortion stories they wanted:
1. Tell a balanced story – Starting with a 1972 episode of “Maude,” Norman Lear realized that showing a pro-life point of view went a long way to making an abortion storyline more palatable for the network. So when 47-year-old Maude (Bea Arthur), who was already a mother, decided to abort, another mature woman character was created to be put in that same position and decide to give birth.
Other examples: “Degrassi High” used twins (one pregnant seeking an abortion, one opposed), “Shameless” used sisters, who both became pregnant, to showcase the two options, and on “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” the pregnant girl’s best friend is the product of a teen pregnancy. On “Jane the Virgin,” the premise of the show is that the lead character decided to have her baby after she was accidentally artificially inseminated. But it’s her grown mother who decided not to have another child later in life.
2. The lead character doesn’t have to be the one making the abortion decision– On “Everwood,” the protagonist Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams) had hesitations about performing an abortion because of how it might affect his reputation in a small, conservative town, and in the end his colleague performed it for him. “[The WB] had the instinct that this would be a very incendiary topic and they didn’t want that for the main character,” said co-writer Vanessa Taylor.
On “Friday Night Lights,” Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) has a religious student come to her for advice after getting pregnant. While Taylor doesn’t advocate abortion one way or another, she does provide the student literature and tells her that no matter what decision she made, she wouldn’t go to Hell.
For some reason, the lead carries more weight when it comes to the controversial decision. “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes got blowback when Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) had a very matter-of-fact abortion, even though a similar story had already been told from a female soldier’s perspective without a fuss.
3. Wait for everyone else to get with the times – Rhimes also wanted to have her character Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) have an abortion in the first season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” but when Standards and Practices warned her of the possible controversy, she backed down because the show had not even aired yet, much less become a hit. Years later, she was able to work it into the plot for Season 7.
It also appears that the United States is more wary of depicting abortion than Canada. The above-mentioned “Degrassi: The Next Generation” episode aired in Canada in 2004, but it was shelved in the U.S. until 2006 when The N (now called TeenNick) dusted it off as part of a full season marathon and added a wraparound of experts discussing teen pregnancy and abortion.
Read the full set of interviews by Cosmopolitan’s Emma Dibdin here.